Discrepancies in Attractiveness Between Romantic Partners

A savvy guide to courtship and communication.
by Sean M. Horan, Ph.D.
Discrepancies in Attractiveness Between Romantic Partners
How 'King of Queens' influences communication.
The late 1990s had a classic recipe for sitcom success: pair a funny guy with an attractive woman. Perhaps the best example of this would be King of Queens, pairing Kevin James and Leah Remini ( http://www.thekingofqueens.com ). We also saw this mix with shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, Drew Carey, According to Jim, and various other iterations.
The shows typically focused on communication between the spouses, but rarely mentioned the mismatch in attractiveness levels between mates.  A question becomes then, do differences in attractiveness levels matter? And, if they do, how do they impact communication between partners? This is a large topic area, and I’ll review some theoretical and research-based explanations to provide some insight into this complex topic.
If I were to ask you to rate yourself on physical attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being not attractive and 10 being very attractive, you know relatively where you fall. Such a rating speaks to the Matching Hypothesis (Walster et al., 1968), which argues that we date relatively “in our league.” In other words, we date individuals with similar levels of physical attractiveness. Our 1990s sitcoms, however, departed from the Matching Hypothesis. Such a discrepancy may influence romantic partner communication, though the question of how communication is influenced is complicated. I’ll review two ways: Mate Value Discrepancy and Dependence Power.
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First, a Mate Value Discrepancy occurs when one thinks there is a mismatch in the value of mates between partners. That is, one believes his or her partner is of higher/lower value than he/she is in terms of what they have to offer. Think of "Boy Meets World" here – Topanga clearly was of higher mate value than Cory.
Sidelinger and Booth-Butterfield offer one example of how this discrepancy may influence communication processes. Those authors found that when someone thought their partner was of a higher mate value they were also more jealous and forgiving of their partners. Applied to "King of Queens," the character played by Kevin James would have higher levels of partner jealousy while also being more forgiving of Leah Remini’s character. It is assumed here that such behaviors are driven by the discrepancy and associated fear of loss. This leads us to another romantic partner communication process: dependence power.
Power dynamics are always at play in relationships, and one relevant process is dependence power. Perceptions of dependence power are formed when one compares their commitment level to that of their partner’s as well as the perceived quality of relational alternatives (see: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/adventures-in-dating/201305/w... ). Applied to "King of Queens," the Kevin James character may perceive, due to Leah Remini’s attractiveness, that she has better relational alternatives and, simultaneously, is less committed to the relationship. Interestingly, such perceptions may influence the decision to communicate about problematic events (e.g., Samp & Solomon) – namely, that when one is dependent on their partner he/she may withhold complaints. This is further complicated in light of Sidelinger and Booth-Butterfield’s findings.
Collectively, the research about Mate Value Discrepancy and dependence power helps highlight how differences in physical attractiveness may influence communication. Before concluding it is important to note that differences in attractiveness levels will not always pay out as detailed above. In fact, couples with mismatched levels of attractiveness can find love and maintain healthy relationships.
That said, we are designed to be aware of physical attractiveness from a very early age—consider that babies stare at photos of attractive faces longer than less attractive faces. Such research implicates that perceptions of physical attractiveness play a role in the management of romantic relationships . This is complicated, and there are no easy answers—so happy dating and mating.
Follow me on Twitter @therealdrsean for relationship commentary/links, complaints about mass transit, and support for WVU Athletics. Continue to follow this blog for future entries about deception , online dating, using affection to lie, workplace romance, and other issues that make obtaining and retaining a mate oh so interesting.   
Horan, S. M. (forthcoming). Physical and social attractiveness. In  C. Berger and M. Roloff’s (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of interpersonal communication.
Samp, J. A., & Solomon, D. H. (2001). Coping with problematic events in dating relationships: The influence of dependence power on severity appraisals and decisions to communicate. Western Journal of Communication, 65, 138–160.
Sidelinger, R. J., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (2007). Mate value discrepancy as a predictor of forgiveness and jealousy in romantic relationships. Communication Quarterly, 55, 207-223.
Walster, E., Aronson, V., Abrahams, D., & Rottman, L. (1968). Importance of physical attractiveness in dating behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 508-518.

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